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Why to care about bike share
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John Bennett is executive director of the savannah bicycle campaign.

Bike share is coming! Bike share is coming! Announced July 19, an eight-bike station will be installed at Chatham Area Transit's Oglethorpe Avenue transit center in September.

Reaction can be grouped into three categories. First, unbridled enthusiasm from people who have used or simply heard about bike sharing systems in other cities.

Next are those who are supportive of the idea, but skeptical of the limited scope of CAT's pilot program and concerned about the location.

Finally, some predict bikes will be vandalized or stolen and that inexperienced cyclists will be injured.

Who's right? Should we be thrilled, wary or worried? Let's address these in reverse order.

I asked Philip Pugliese of the Bike Chattanooga Bicycle Transit System if fears of property destruction and personal injury are warranted.

"Our system has been relatively free of any issues related to theft and vandalism," he said. "As with many other bike share systems, our experience has been that users have proven quite capable of traveling safely through our city."

Laura Ringo of Spartanburg's B-cycle program concurred. "To date, we've not had any theft, and the only vandalism is the breaking of the plastic bells on the bicycles," she said.

A 2012 report from the Federal Highway Administration backs Ringo and Pugliese, finding that theft and vandalism have not been a major issue for bike sharing programs and that "early evidence suggests that crash rates in existing bike sharing programs are low."

What about the limited size of CAT's pilot program? Is it too small to succeed?

It's dwarfed by Chattanooga's system, which launched with 300 bikes and 28 docking stations, and has added more stations since then. Pugliese said ridership is divided evenly between residents and tourists.

"Public bike share systems work best as a connected network," he said. "While many cities have started with just a few stations and bicycles with expectation of expansion, more is generally better."  A $2 million federal grant helped start the program and as that funding runs out, new revenue sources are being explored.

By contrast, Ringo said a more gradual approach better suited her community. "For Spartanburg, starting small seemed like the ideal roll-out," she said. "Introducing bicycle sharing slowly seemed to make sense so that we can get residents and visitors excited and grow the system as interest grows."

The FHA study, "Bike Sharing in the United States: State of the Practice and Guide to Implementation," suggests that "Small bike sharing programs can be successful," but that more assessment will be needed as small programs mature in order to determine a "long term prognosis."

It's certain that additional stations and bikes will be required to develop CAT's pilot program into a robust and popular system.

Spartanburg B-cycle launched with two stations and 14 bikes and has added two additional stations at Wofford College and Converse College. Ringo said the involvement of the campuses was "critically important" to the success of the system.

"The proximity of the colleges to downtown and thus the use of the bicycles moves the system from recreationally-based to transportation-based, which is the reason bicycle sharing was designed," she said. "College students seem like the ideal group to lead this effort."

In Chattanooga, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students can buy annual Bike Chattanooga passes at a reduced price and stations are located at the UTC Student Center and other campus buildings.

Finally, is the excitement over bike share warranted in the first place? Research suggests that bicycle share programs can deliver big benefits to citizens and their communities. The 2013 Capital Bikeshare Member Survey Report reveals how the service has changed the lives of those who pay an annual fee to use the CaBi bikes in the Washington D.C. area.

"On average, each Capital Bikeshare member saves $800 per year on personal travel cost," the study found. What's more, "40 percent of respondents used Bikeshare to make at least one trip they would not have made if Bikeshare had not been available." More than half these trips were made for social or entertainment purposes, suggesting the economic impact.

And it gets better: "More than eight in ten respondents said they are either much more likely (37 percent) or somewhat more likely (48 percent) to patronize an establishment that is accessible by Capital Bikeshare."

Some analysts detect that bike share is becoming a gateway drug to bike ownership, so fear not bike shop owners. Once people try bike share, they'll want wheels of their own.